USFS installs firefighting base at Casper airport

 USFS installs firefighting base at Casper airport

02 August 2016

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USA — CASPER – With fires already raging around the state and region, wildland firefighting staging and preparation efforts came to Central Wyoming this week, as the U.S. Forest Service established a base for “large” and “very-large” air tankers at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport.

If fires break out in eastern Wyoming or parts of six surrounding states, the tankers will use Casper as a refueling base, as well as employing the airport’s facilities to load the fire retardant Phos-Chek into the planes’ tanks.

USFS manager Mark Sonderby is in charge of the 12-person crew of federal fire management specialists. Also on hand is a private contract crew, which handles the fire retardant, as well as manning the equipment used in loading it into the aircraft.

The “very-large” air tanker used in fighting wildfires is a DC-10, one of which was last based in Casper four years ago. It carries 11,600 gallons of the fuchsia-colored Phos-Chek. The base can also service large air tankers. These are usually British-built BAE 146s planes; AJ 85 aircraft, also British-built; and P2Vs, former U.S. Navy planes that carry 2,000 gallons of retardant.

Contract crew foreman Jose Yorbais said the retardant — which is manufactured by ICL Performance Products in California and Idaho — is very visible when dropped. The retardant’s color fades in two-to three weeks and, since it contains a lot of nitrogen, the land is fertilized to some extent each time it is dropped. The elaborate equipment at the tanker base will mix 2,100 gallons of water with one ton of retardant; the mixture being carried by large hoses to the waiting aircraft. The contractors have set up large water tanks that are filled from the airport’s hydrants. The airport charges $3.10 per thousand gallons for water and rents office space to the firefighters for $290 a month. The base’s office is on the southwest end of the terminal, with rapid access to the ramp where tankers will be loaded.

Sonderby said the greatest concern during tanker operations is people flying drones that could endanger aircraft and crews and, in the event of a collision, prevent the retardant from being delivered to a fire. He asked the public to refrain from flying into air operations areas.

“We are increasingly concerned about drone intrusions in airspace used by tankers, helicopters, spotter planes and other emergency equipment,” Sonderby said.

The six-man Phos-Chek crew waits patiently on the ramp until a tanker arrives. They undergo training and daily briefings. The balance of the crew also watches training videos and participates in lecture sessions. The federal crew in Casper is made up of Forest Service employees, along with workers from the National Park Service, Texas A&M University and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

The Bureau of Land Management also currently has a presence at the airport, as it operates a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) base at the other end of the airport. Two small tankers capable of hauling several hundred gallons of retardant to a fire work out of the base.

All the crews hope they are not needed, but constantly stand at the ready in the event fires within their range erupt and the planes start flying to battle them.

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